This is my advent wreath. It’s not exactly log shaped, but I feel like it has the spirit.
This is fourth in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. I didn’t note my sources, but please trust I did verify the information.
Many people burn a Yule log (or at least watch one burning on TV while listening to Christmas music) without knowing its origins. It has its beginnings in Germanic paganism practiced in areas like Scandinavia and Germany. It ties in with the pagan origins of the Christmas tree, which we’ll discuss later. The tradition began using a whole tree, which was ritually cut and brought indoors with great ceremony. The end would be placed in the hearth fire with the rest of the tree in the room. The remnants of last year’s log would be used to light the tree and would be added to the fire each day.
Different kinds of wood are used in different countries. Pine is traditional in Germany, while the English like their oak (which is plentiful there and ties back to Druid belief that oak is sacred). In Scotland, they use birch and in France they use cherry wood sprinkled with wine before it is burned so that it smells good when it is lit.
In the 1600s, the Yule log even transformed into a type of rolled cake that was made popular by Parisian bakers in the 1800s. They may taste good, but take it from me, they are difficult to bake.
Yule log cake. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.
Have you ever lit a Yule log? How about baked the eponymous cake?
I’m scared of fire (plus I have cats and cats like to try to light themselves on fire) so I have an advent wreath that kind of resembles a Yule log. I also try every few years to bake a Yule log cake, but always end up with a cake that falls apart rather than rolls.
Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Tomorrow (December 21) is Yule, also known as Midwinter or the Winter Solstice. Have you ever wondered why this day is called Midwinter, yet we refer to it as the first day of winter? That’s because our calendar is messed up. In Celtic times, Midwinter was exactly that, halfway been the start of winter (October 31) and the beginning of spring (February 1).
There’s great debate over whether the Celts actually celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, or whether they only kept the four major holy days of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasa. You’ll find historians on both sides of the argument. Given that the Druids were very attuned to both nature and the movement of the heavenly bodies, I would think they did mark the occasions. After all, even though the Druids had nothing to do with building Stonehenge, Avebury, Newgrange or the other Neolithic stone circles, they no doubt understood they were there to at least mark the passage of time, if not for some greater purpose.
Let’s assume for a moment that the Celts did celebrate the equinoxes and solstices. If so, why? What did they mean? Well, they certainly would have been important to the cycle of the land, if not in the mythology in which the people believed. Here’s a look at each one, and what it may have meant in the lives of Celtic people:
Midwinter Solstice: This is the longest night of the year. This was a great gathering of the clans, with many symbols of fire and light used to try to encourage the sun to wax stronger once again. Agriculturally, the land lies fallow and covered in snow, waiting for spring. Mythologicaly, it is the rebirth of the god (call him Lugh, Mabon, Mithras, what have you) who died at Samhain. The goddess, by whatever name you call her, pauses from her role as Winter Hag to give birth to her son/Sun, only to return to her dark form thereafter until spring. (Last year I wrote about three possible festivals the Celts may have celebrated on this day.)
Vernal Equinox: Day and night are in equal balance. After this day, the light of day will eclipse the dark of night. The goddess is in her aspect of the maiden, and the god is young, but the two have not yet married and mated (that’s Beltane). She walks across the land, waking it from its winter slumber, leaving flowers where her feet touched. Agriculturally, the ground has thawed and it is time for tilling and planting to begin. Many festivities around this time involve the blessing of tools, seeds and even whole fields to ensure a bountiful harvest – though many of those same things also happened on Imbolc and Beltane.
Midsummer Solstice: The Sun is at the height of its power and so is the god. He is the strong, virile warrior. The goddess is with child, proclaiming her fertility just as the land does. Light and fire are the themes of this festival, including fire wheels being rolled down hills and in to lakes, symbolizing the sun’s strength. This is an auspicious time for gathering herbs, especially magical ones, which the Druids likely would have participated in. Nature spirits were thought to be especially active this night, long before Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Autumnal Equinox: Again, night and day are equal, but this time night will take the upper hand. The god has been wounded at Lughnasa, but will not die until Samhain. His power wanes along with the sun. The goddess, heavy with child, reflects the fruits of the harvest in her swollen belly. All around, the earth is preparing for winter, feeding people and animals alike with bounty to store during the cold, dark nights that lie ahead. Trees blaze a riot of colors while preparing for their winter dormancy. The Celts held especially sacred the cutting of the final sheaf of the harvest (just as they did the first on Lughnasa). This was done by chance, rather than electing a specific person for the honor. The final sheaf would be plaited into a “corn dolly” in the shape of an animal or human, which was kept until the end of the next harvest and burned when a new one was created. The person who cut it was given a special elevated position for the day.
This is only a brief overview of what these feasts might have been. If you want more information, I recommend The Apple Branch by Alexi Kondratiev, from which much of the material for this post was taken.
What do you think? Do you think the Celts celebrated the solstices and equinoxes? Why or why not? Do you think they are important? If you lived during that time, would you have celebrated them? Do you celebrate them now?
Call it MithraYuleMas – the fact that three distinct holidays (holy days) were celebrated on or near December 25 in the times of King Arthur and Guinevere. It was a contentious age, in which the old pagan religions were waning and the new religion of Christianity was just gaining power, so what each person celebrated depended on their faith. (I’m not taking any sides here, just stating the tenants of the traditions.) Here are the top three most likely festivals:
The Great Mother and her divine son
Yule – Celebrated on the Winter Solstice (December 21-23 depending on the year), Yule marks the longest night of the year and the rebirth of the god who died at Samhain. This child of light (Lugh, Mabon or various other gods) is symbolized by the sun, which will continue to gain strength until the Summer Solstice. In some versions of Celtic mythology, the young god is kidnapped or stolen away in precarious circumstances, much like the Christian story of the flight into Egypt and the Arthurian tale of Arthur’s fostering by Sir Ector at Merlin’s command. Many sites associated with the Druids, such as Newgrange and Stonehenge, are aligned to the Winter Solstice sunrise or sunset.
The holy family
Christmas – Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the son of the Hebrew (and now Christian) God. Many scholars now agree it is likely the historical Jesus was born in spring or summer, the time when shepherds (who were among the first to visit baby Jesus, according to the Bible) would have had their sheep in pasture and been keeping the night watch mentioned in the Bible. So why do we celebrate Christmas in December? The Catholic Church was very good assimilating aspects of the old faiths when it took over. That date conveniently encompassed the pagan celebrations of Yule and the birth of Mithras (see below), so it would have made the conversion of the faithful a little easier.
Mithras slaying the bull
Birth of Mithras – Mithras began as a Persian Zoroastrian god of oaths, but was assimilated by the Romans in a highly elaborate cult. Because of his popularity with soldiers, some researchers suggest he may have been the god of choice of a pagan, Romano-Celtic King Arthur. Like Jesus, Mithras was said to have been born on December 25 and was as a reconciler between the forces of good and evil who was buried in a tomb and rose after three days. Like the Celtic gods celebrated at Yule, he was a child of the sun. Sources differ over whether or not Mithras was ever human.
So which feast were Arthur and Guinevere most likely to celebrate? The truth is, we don’t know. I’ve made decisions for my books, but personally, I think the smartest course of action would have been to keep their personal beliefs to themselves and tolerate all three. That way, they would ensure the loyalty of the greatest number of their subjects.